I saw Beck from a great distance in the heyday of Odelay, sandwiched between Primus and Toad the Wet Sprocket: it was the early nineties, it was Horde, we were bopping on the throbbing lawn, and folk was the farthest thing from anyone's mind. Fifteen years later I'm married to the girl I took to the concert, Beck's still cranking out the pophits, my hard drive is stuffed with folk music, and I pick up every Beck album as it comes out.
Is Beck a folk musician? Not if measured by his hits, no. Technically, his most popular work is post-modern alt-rock, if anything. But there's plenty of reasons why Wikipedia includes the artist formerly known as Bek David Campbell in its list of American folk singers, and uses the term "folk song" to describe a vast swath of his work (I swear, it said that even before I showed up). Beck spent his early days as a busker and coffeeshop player, which gives him the folk street cred; he even opened for Johnny Cash in 1995. He can play a slide guitar and twang his postadolescent voice like no one's business; some of his songs from that period and before come across as almost alt-country.
Beck's songwriting, too, lends itself well to the cadence of the folksinger, as both his less highly-produced projects and covers of his work demonstrate. Today's bonus selections, by KT Tunstall, Tom Petty, and Marianne Faithful, provide some tasty versions from the folkier side of this versatile performer's songbook, just to show how folk these songs really are. But Beck's 2002 album Sea Change, especially, represents a stripped-down acoustic style that leans on his rough interpretation and a simple, indiefolk production style -- even if the occasional synthpulse in the background belies his post-modern hip hop heritage.
And when Beck takes on the songs of others, he generally chooses to slow them down, letting his quavery voice and lo-fi, sparse acoustic instrumentation recreate tone and timbre until everything is wistful, hazy, and raw. Live or B-side, tribute album or hidden track, Beck's penchant towards funereal alt-folk pieces, like Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch at their slow and melodramatic best, legitimizes his inclusion in a blog devoted to folk covers.
Want proof? Today we bring you a broad set of covers from Beck's folksinger side: the dreamlike echoes and hawaiian guitar of Your Cheatin' Heart, the strings and lo-fi drumkit pulse of James Warren's Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes, the slow, ragged-harmonies of Beck and Emmylou Harris covering Gram Parson's countryband ballad Sin City, an in-studio acoustic cover of the Flaming Lips, and the eerie, gorgeously dark Nick Drake covers Pink Moon, Which Will, and Parasite. Are they folk songs? Absolutely. Is Beck an unsung folkstar? Listen up, and decide for yourself:
- Beck, Your Cheatin' Heart (orig. Hank Williams)
- Beck, Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes (orig. J. Warren)
- Beck w/ Emmylou Harris, Sin City (orig. Gram Parsons)
- Beck, Do You Realize? (orig. The Flaming Lips)
- Beck, Pink Moon (orig. Nick Drake)
- Beck, Parasite (orig. Nick Drake)
- Beck, Which Will (orig. Nick Drake)
Regardless of categorization, Beck's work is available directly through his online store. Folkfans should probably start with Sea Change; if your ears can take the bouncier, harder stuff, I also highly recommend Odelay and Guero.
Today's bonus coversongs:
- Tom Petty's raggedly majestic cover of Asshole
- KT Tunstall's gorgeous, gentle acoustic The Golden Age
- Marianne Faithful's low, lethargic Nobody's Fault